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Microorganisms in Ancient Permafrost

Katie Sipes, doctoral student in the UT Department of Microbiology, is the lead author on a new research publication looking at the fate of permafrost microorganisms and their connection to predicted rapid environmental changes. Karen Lloyd, associate professor of microbiology, is the senior author.

The paper, Eight Metagenome-Assembled Genomes Provide Evidence for Microbial Adaptation in 20,000- to 1,000,000-Year-Old Siberian Permafrost, was published in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a publication of the American Society for Microbiology.

Permafrost plays an essential role in the Arctic ecosystem by maintaining the vast network of wetlands and lakes across the Arctic tundra that provide habitat for plants and animals. When its frozen, plant material in the soil cannot decompose quickly. As it thaws, however, microbes speed up the decomposition of organic carbon, potentially releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Permafrost is thawing rapidly and many scientists from a variety of disciplines have shown the importance of understanding what will happen to our ecosystem, commerce, and climate when permafrost thaws.

“Life in ancient permafrost is pretty mysterious,” Lloyd said. “Liquid water only exists in tiny brine veins that are too salty to freeze. The genomes we found are more similar to those found in deep-sea sediments than they are to those found in shallow permafrost. It raises interesting questions about the types of organisms that can actually be found in this extreme location and how they manage to live.”

The fate of permafrost microorganisms is connected to the predicted rapid environmental changes and studying ancient permafrost gives researchers a glimpse into how these microorganisms function under extreme low-temperature and low-energy conditions.

“This research will facilitate an understanding of how these microorganisms will change with the environment,” Sipes said.

Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, Research Associate Professor at the UT Center for Environmental Biotechnology and affiliate with the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Science, in Pushchino, Russia, and Tullis C. Onstott, Professor Emeritus of Geosciences at Princeton University, who sadly passed away October 19, 2021, helped secure the NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity grant that supported this work.